The plain truth is that plain packaging does not cut smoking
The market, rather than the government, has created an alternative in e-cigarettes, most of which vie directly against Big Tobacco
In countries such as Canada, France, the UK and SA, measures aimed at reducing smoking and tobacco use are on the primary docket.
Chief in each government’s arsenal is a requirement that cigarette and tobacco products be subject to plain packaging, with all cigarette logos and designs excluded and graphic warnings taking up all space. That’s caused a lot of panic at Big Tobacco.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has often invoked the health risk posed by tobacco, and for good reason. It is estimated that as much as 21% of South African teenagers currently smoke.
"Our message is that cigarettes have no place in modern life. Big cigarette companies have never won any case. I am very confident that within my lifetime there will be no smoking in the world. We will defeat it," said Motsoaledi.
Motsoaledi has mentioned having plain packaging regulations across South African shops, just like in Australia and the UK.
Reducing teen smoking is a goal we should all share. But in the age of technological innovation, which has spawned smoke-free vaporisers and other alternatives, why would the South African government put all its eggs in the plain-packaged basket? Does it work and could it work for young South Africans?
Looking to Australia, South African health authorities would be remiss to find any claims of mass rejection of tobacco products. The evidence actually points in the other direction.
A look at the surveys after Australia’s plain packaging scheme shows attitudes on the policy are quite clear. The cigarette packs with no labeling are ugly and turn young people off to smoking.
But somehow, despite that fact, youth smoking has gone up.
Before plain packaging was introduced in late 2012, the smoking rates among 12-24 year olds were dropping, according to the Cancer Institute of New South Wales.
However, once plain cigarette packs hit the shelves in 2013, smoking rates for the same age group went back up to 16%. Does that mean that not doing anything would have actually caused less people to smoke? At least in Australia, it’s not certain.
Another study on teen smoking in the state of Victoria reveals the same. Before plain packaging was introduced, youth smoking in 2001 was at 16.1%. It fell to 14.7% once plain packaging came into effect, but rose to 15.4% in 2013.
It seems the legislation nudged young Australians to smoke more, perhaps upsetting the downward trend that was already happening
Such evidence may require the South African government to admit plain packaging does not work as it is claimed to, and something else must be done.
The market, rather than the government, has created an alternative in electronic cigarettes, most of which compete directly against Big Tobacco.
Across SA, thousands of vape shops are popping up around urban centres, and there is reason to think these devices could be more successful than legislation in getting smokers to quit.
A 2014 article in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety points to e-cigarettes as a useful combatant in the fight against smoking.
"Currently available evidence indicates that electronic cigarettes are by far a less harmful alternative to smoking, and significant health benefits are expected in smokers who switch from tobacco to electronic cigarettes," the authors write. "There is no tobacco and no combustion involved in electronic cigarette use; therefore, regular vapers may avoid several harmful toxic chemicals that are typically present in the smoke of tobacco cigarettes."
That being said, governments and public health groups are not yet keen on e-cigarettes. The US’s Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on vaping shops. The US surgeon-general has labelled e-cigarettes a "major public health concern."
But not all public health officials are ready to condemn e-cigarettes. "This is the first genuinely new way of helping people stop smoking that has come along in decades," John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham, told the New York Times.
With such a body of evidence, it is time the South African government heeds the warnings from both Australia and the UK. Plain packaging will not reduce smoking, no matter how much the government tries. But market alternatives could achieve this without government intervention.
• Ossowski is a Canadian journalist and senior development officer at Students For Liberty